Hockey players around the country grow up wanting to be the next Joe Pavelski or Auston Matthews. After all, isn’t that why you lace up the skates for that 6 a.m. practice on a Tuesday as a 12-year-old?
But no one really dreams of being the next Wes McCauley or Kelly Sutherland. Why? It doesn’t come attached with the same glory of being a star player. Yet officiating hockey games is a career that lasts much longer and you are still right in the middle of all the action.
That’s the idea behind Next Shift, a new initiative between USA Hockey and the North American Hockey League, to plant the seed with younger players that there can be a hockey life beyond scoring goals, backchecking or stopping pucks. Next Shift is targeting players who might be exhausting their competitive playing days, yet still want to remain part of the game they love by developing them into on-ice officials.
Keith Kaval, director of officiating for the NAHL since 2018, knew changes were needed to the developmental system for on-ice officials when he took the position, but admits his eyes were a little big and he might have been too ambitious by wanting to take a “flamethrower” to what was in place. Instead, he exercised a bit of patience.
“I kind of stepped back and looked at the landscape of where we’re at in officiating, not only with what our program was doing, but probably the bigger picture of what was going on in our entire industry — that's from the top of the pyramid, the National Hockey League, all the way down to grassroots level,” said Kaval, an official in the American Hockey League for 12 seasons who earned multiple IIHF assignments for top tournaments. “The one thing that kind of intrigued me was that the number of applicants, the number of people that were currently officiating at various levels were not as high as they once were and that kind of that kind of troubled me.”
Launched at the beginning of May, Next Shift will take a multipronged approach to building the number of men and women who want to become officials. The NAHL, along with its affiliated junior leagues, will provide education, experience and exposure in hopes of deepening the pool of officials at all levels of hockey.
Kaval said the idea sprang from the NHL officiating combine, which started in the last decade, as it looked to boost numbers at the upper levels of hockey by recruiting college and minor-league players to develop perhaps in the American Hockey League.
“It’s kind of hit or miss because it’s a tough environment to learn [to officiate in the AHL],” Kaval said. “Whereas at the junior hockey level, I kind of felt that — we've got the Tier III level, which is a little bit slower, less skill — it's a great place to learn, you can make mistakes, it's no different than the players, it’s no different than the coaches. We’re all working together in that same kind of bubble to try to develop.”
Kendall Hanley, who was recently hired to work alongside Kaval as the NAHL’s manager of officiating, was key to launching Next Shift. After finishing her playing career, Hanley was set on using her zoology degree to become a veterinarian when a chance meeting following a pickup hockey game steered her on a path that saw her become one of the most respected officials in the world. She was one of the two linespeople on the ice for this year’s Olympic women’s gold-medal game between the U.S. and Canada.
“I was incredibly excited to join Keith because I just know what our team does and what passion we share for officiating and helping others,” Hanley said. “When I talked to Keith about what they had in mind for this initiative, he kind of ended and said, ‘OK, where do you think we should build this and go?’ And to me, my background as a player coming out of college and really not knowing what was next, I just happened to be exposed to somebody that talked to me about officiating. Up until that point, I really hadn’t thought about it as my next career path and, fast-forward to now, I really hadn’t thought about it as all these incredible opportunities and the people that I’ve met.
“You know, to me, this Next Shift program is all about inspiring others like myself — I wish I’d gotten into officiating earlier but I didn’t. To me, it’s just making sure that we’re leaving no pool untapped.”
To be clear, while Next Shift is being run by the NAHL, one of its primary goals is to build officiating at the local levels. After all, how many games have been delayed on a Saturday morning because there weren’t enough officials around and someone had to be coerced to come out of the stands to officiate?
“I think obviously any league is capable of doing this, but I think that the unique part about the NA in this case is that their footprint really covers a broad range,” said Matt Leaf, director of the USA Hockey Officiating Development Program. “They have the NAPHL, which is their prospects hockey league that covers the youth levels [14- to 18-year-olds], and then they have the Tier II juniors with the North American League and the Tier III juniors with the NA3 — and they cover the entire country.”
Another key aspect is the relationships that Hanley has built in her travels around the country as an on-ice official. She was born in North Carolina, attended a prep school in Massachusetts and two colleges in New York, and lived and worked in Texas and Colorado, among other places.
“We're targeting players [male and female] who maybe are getting done with junior hockey, maybe getting done with youth hockey or maybe they’re getting done with college hockey or even players coming from pro hockey,” Hanley said. “To me, it’s going to be networking and utilizing the coaches and owners and you know, relationships that we have at the district level, down to the affiliate and local associations. I’m really hitting the ground running with reestablishing or just utilizing the network that I have had, but also building relationships.”
To begin with, Next Shift has a modest goal of signing up between 20 and 30 officials per year to go through the program this summer and hit the ice when games resume next season. Building from the bottom will provide a stronger base and improve officiating at all levels as the officials push each other to get better.
“From what’s unfolded in the North American Hockey League’s office on down, there’s a commitment to quality officiating, a commitment to doing things the right way,” said Scott Zelkin, manager of USA Hockey’s Junior Official Development Program. “Then the hiring of Kendall Hanley. I work with Keith as closely as anybody within the game of hockey. We’re on the phone all the time talking about officiating, talking about prospects, who’s doing well, who’s moving on, who needs a little bit more care and coaching to help bring them along. Keith and I are talking on a daily basis. To bring Kendall in, who has had success at the highest level, she has a passion for officiating and she has a passion for teaching and passing on that knowledge to the next generation.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.